More Options

Flat-Earth Anxieties Reflect Misplaced Priorities

Commentary

Craig A. Foster

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 42.3, May / June 2018

Somehow, some way, the flat-earth movement continues to make waves. Legitimate news sources and social media platforms have distributed a variety of interesting flat-earth reports over the past year. This news has included an international flat-earth conference in Raleigh, North Carolina; a rapper and apparent flat-earther named B.o.B. who started a fundraising campaign to purchase satellites; and a self-taught rocket scientist who planned to launch himself from a converted motorhome to obtain evidence that the earth is flat.

Stories such as these seem to irritate many of those who recognize that the earth is actually shaped like a ball—an imperfect ball, but still clearly a ball. These “round earthers” demonstrate their frustration by commenting on the absurdity of the flat-earth movement. They sometimes describe flat earthers in pejorative ways. They provide arguments intended to stop the rotational momentum of the flat-earth movement. I even recall a Facebook comment suggesting that round earthers should secretly infiltrate flat-earth meetings to undermine their misshapen belief system. I have to ask—and I truly mean this kindly—why does anybody care?

To be fair, I semi-understand. One hopes that the flat-earth movement represents a low point in contemporary susceptibility to pseudoscience, and it is disappointing to see people promote a claim that is so dramatically misaligned with science and reason. Nevertheless, the potential and kinetic energy devoted to counter the flat-earth movement is wasteful and misguided. It reveals a broad naiveté about which forms of pseudoscience have real gravitas. Specifically, I don’t understand why anybody would worry about the flat-earth gnat while facing the climate change mammoth.

First, the possible expansion of the flat-earth sphere of influence seems to present few, if any, directly destructive consequences. Passenger planes will still land in their intended locations. Skiing enthusiasts will still slide downhill. The major consequence of the flat-earth movement seems to be indirect. That is, if people can be convinced that the earth is flat, what other nonsense might they also believe? In contrast, climate change denial is at best the cause of widespread harm and at worst a likely candidate to snuff the human race. Some people use scientists’ inability to agree on the consequences of climate change as justification for inaction, but this approach is obviously foolish. It is akin to allowing hooligans to continue vandalizing your home because you can’t determine exactly how much the damage will cost.

Second, the flat-earth movement is hardly likely to reach levels achieved by climate change denial. The problems underlying the flat-earth movement are easily identified; arguments referencing ice walls, international conspiracies, and biblical verses (e.g., Job 38:13) sound unconvincing. The flat-earth movement also has limited financial backing (at least it seems that way judging by B.o.B.’s GoFundMe campaign). Climate change denial is much tougher to obstruct. Climate change denial does not require belief. It only requires neglect. Humans frequently neglect problems; just consider the omnipresence of unhealthy diets and credit card debt. Humans are clearly willing to incur greater costs tomorrow to avoid more efficient solutions today. Neglect is particularly easy in the climate change domain because humans cannot sense directly the slow rise in average temperature, and powerful self-interested groups cultivate a belief that climate change is not truly dangerous.

Furthermore, encouraging people to neglect climate change warnings plays on their psychological vulnerabilities. Humans have a well-known tendency to view the future with unrealistic optimism. For instance, they typically believe that their marriages will last, despite the observable frequency of divorce. Humans also have a particular dislike for loss. They would rather avoid losing $1,000 than gain $1,000. This makes it difficult for people to admit that their current lifestyle is not compatible with long-term climate health. Together, these well-known psychological biases make it easy for people to bet that climate change is not happening—and if it is, the consequences couldn’t be that dire.

Climate change denial is much more than any run-of-the-mill willingness to cook up some woo. Climate change denial impedes our ability to pass the ultimate test of whether humans can work together to solve collective problems. Climate change provides a direct threat to humanity. The causes of climate change are known, and the scientific solution is sufficiently clear: decrease the production of greenhouse gasses. Humans can create that solution if they are willing to (a) trust the scientific community and (b) do their part to avoid jeopardizing friends who live next door and strangers who live halfway around the world. The need to satisfy both of these conditions creates the “multiplicative” rule in probability. Accordingly, if the likelihood of sufficient trust in science is 60 percent and the likelihood of corresponding change is 60 percent, the likelihood of a sufficient response is only 36 percent.

As a social psychology professor who examines pseudoscience, I have pondered whether humans are so flawed that we could allow a challenging but ultimately solvable problem to escalate to a point where it extinguishes the human race. Some days I think so. Humans have achieved incredible things, but they are stubborn about changing their beliefs. This pervasive characteristic is particularly dangerous in the context of climate change. All humans need to do is delay a legitimate solution until we pass some ambiguous tipping point where the problem becomes irreversible. In my opinion, humans are entirely capable of that.

That is why I don’t fret about whether people believe that the earth is a disc or a globe—and you shouldn’t either. Don’t mistake a cup of tepid pseudoscience for a pot of boiling denial. Those who believe in man-made climate change should recognize the importance of this issue and avoid being unfittingly distracted by less important forms of pseudoscience. For those of you who doubt that man-made climate change is a serious issue, I kindly ask you to reconsider. Flat or round, Earth is a truly amazing planet. I don’t like playing roulette with it.